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Gen Zers unite on social issues but split over Trump vs. Biden

Election workers sort ballots. Gen Zers' ballots figure to account for a respectable portion of those ballots, experts say.
(Associated Press)

Passionate about affirmative action, women’s rights and tackling the coronavirus, 21-year-old college student Maiya De La Rosa cast the first presidential vote of her life last week for Joe Biden.

Nick Dokoozlian, a Republican from the Central Valley, wrote in his choice of candidate for president on his ballot — but declined to state who. The University of Colorado Boulder student, also 21, said he couldn’t commit to the former vice president or to President Trump. He’s concerned about fiscal policy and immigration, and wants a new healthcare system to replace Obamacare.

Despite their differences, these Gen Z voters agree that, for their many in their age group, certain issues — climate change, support for LGBTQ rights — transcend partisan politics. They may not agree on the solutions to the forest fires plaguing California or the bleaching of coral reefs, but most believe that these problems must be solved within their lifetimes.

“The way I have always framed it is that these issues are going to affect all of us in the long run,” said De La Rosa, a double major in political science and Chicano and Chicana studies at UC Davis.

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Gen Z, comprising those born after 1996, is shaping up as one of the most politically informed and active, researchers say — even if they tend to be less inclined to identify with major political parties than their elders.

Many Gen Z voters — most heading to the polls for the first time — have taken up politics at a young age, driving movements on climate change and gun control, as well as racial and economic justice. It is a generation marked by recent explosions in civic engagement and awareness, one that is as likely to march through the streets with Black Lives Matter as it is to swarm social media feeds.

And they are poised, scholars say, to vote in large numbers come election day.

“Unlike any other presidential year, even, we have a sort of huge young number of people who are ready to vote, ready to be mobilized,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. “Young people will have a sizable impact.”

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Gen Z, she added, is more likely to participate in the political system than millennials, who were engaged in community outreach at a young age but who — broadly speaking — were inclined to view politics as ineffective.

“One thing that is shifting is that there is much more of an eye toward the local community and local politics,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “If presidential candidates aren’t extremely exciting to them” — research indicates that young people are less stirred by Trump and Biden than they were by Barack Obama — “there’s instead an understanding that a county judge matters.”

A poll of the nation’s 18-to-29-year-olds from the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School this week “found historic interest in the upcoming election,” with 63% of respondents indicating that they will “definitely be voting” compared with 47% during the same time in 2016. The uptick marks the highest proportion of respondents saying they will “definitely” vote than “has been observed in this age group in several decades,” the Institute of Politics noted.

Gen Z is the most diverse generation in American history, said Elizabeth Matto, director of the Center for Youth Political Participation at Rutgers University. It is also, she added, the most educated generation at this stage in their lives. Just 52% of Gen Z is non-Hispanic white, according to data from the Pew Research Center, compared with 61% of millennials in 2002.

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“We have grown up in mixed communities, diverse communities,” said Dokoozlian, state captain for the organization Gen Z GOP. “We see how our friends of color are treated sometimes ... conservative Republicans my age are more willing to understand Black Lives Matters protests and calls for social justice than other generations. We have grown up in a different world.”

That doesn’t mean he agrees with the “liberal solutions” proposed by the Black Lives Matter movement, Dokoozlian said. But he believes that, overall, the Republican Party has failed so far to respond to the resurgent social justice movement.

“That is really poor leadership,” he said. “They need to begin to address these issues. If they want to win elections, they’re going to have to start to have these tough conversations.”

Data show that those in Generation Z, like millennials before them, tend to be more liberal than their older counterparts. A January report from the Pew Research Center found that among registered voters, 61% of Gen Z voters said that they were definitely or probably going to vote for the Democratic candidate for president this year, while 22% responded that they were planning to vote for Trump.

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And among Republicans, Gen Z conservatives are likely to diverge from older party members on key issues, the Pew study said.

Gen Z Republicans are more likely than their elders to say that Black people are treated less fairly than white people. Among Republicans, about 43% of Gen Z respondents take that view, compared with 30% of millennials and roughly 20% of Gen Xers, boomers and those in the silent generation. Gen Z Republicans are also much more likely to say that an uptick in diversity is a good thing for society.

And while 85% of baby boomer Republicans and 76% of Gen X Republicans approve of Trump’s performance, 59% of Gen Zers think he’s doing a good job, according to Pew.

For Jasminé Lockhart, a student at Arizona State University, one of the key issues on the ballot this fall is climate change, and environmental issues such as how to transition from fossil fuels.

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“I am really concerned that people are brushing it off when we are seeing it, and the forests are burning,” the 22-year-old said. “I am reconsidering having children because I don’t know what it’s going to look like for them in future.”

An organizer with the Maricopa County Democratic Party, Lockhart said that she would like to see the country reenter the 2015 Paris climate accord, from which Trump withdrew the U.S.

“I don’t need to live in California to empathize with people who are having to flee their homes because it’s burning,” she said. “Gen Z does a good job about trying to care about everybody.”

Young Arizona voters like Lockhart could leave a lasting imprint on the 2020 election, according to an analysis by Tufts University’s research center CIRCLE. Nearly 20% of residents in the battle ground state are young people, among the highest rates in the country. Trump won Arizona by less than 4 percentage points in 2016, and the youth vote could swing a competitive election, CIRCLE noted.

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Overall, about one in five young GOP voters in 2018, and 8% of young Trump voters in 2016, plan to support Biden this year, data from CIRCLE show. The center predicts that young voters could have an outsized impact in North Carolina, where Republican Armand Ash is voting for Biden.

“In 2012 or 2008, the Republican was a good and decent human being, and this doesn’t seem like it’s the same anymore,” said Ash, a student at Wake Forest University. “It feels like I am having to set aside some of the preferences I have for this country on a fiscal scale, pertinent to the economy and things like healthcare and social security, and I have to vote for the better person on the ballot who isn’t going to destroy democracy.”

The 20-year-old said that he has been helping friends register to vote. Bipartisan groups on campus have also been pushing for students to vote, he said, adding that there is a polling station not far from the university.

As the only conservative in his house, he and his roommates often discuss politics, touching on topics such as healthcare and social justice.

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“When you have a mutual respect for each other, those conversations can do well,” he said.

One criticism he has of the Trump administration is its fiscal policy, he said. He’d like to see a new federal reserve chairman after what he views as an “unbelievably irresponsible” move to reduce interest rates multiple times when the economy was growing.

While he believes there is a “fine line to walk” with the Black Lives Matter movement, Ash said many young conservatives feel that they can be pro-law enforcement while also supporting the movement through police reform and “responsible and ethical policing.”

He and his liberal counterparts also find it easier to share common ground because of their social beliefs, he said.

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“That includes not being racist,” he said. “Believing that we have to handle climate change, that scientists are not wrong or fake and that it’s a serious existential crisis that we need to address.”


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